Today, to mark this, the first full day of Ramadan 2017 / 1438h, I am posting a revised version of a column – first published in 2013 – that I like a lot:
Dark. Slightly after 3 a.m. Still air, heavy. As I awaken I hear, above the hum of the bedroom fan, faint familiar sounds, echoes, that seem to resonate across the cosmos: “God is Great, God is Great …; Prayer is better than sleep,” as the faithful are beckoned to prayer.
It’s the first day of the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’m up before Fajr, before dawn, to eat a small meal, perform my ablutions and prepare to say my prayers.
Imsak. Start the fast.
It’s going to be a long day: 17 hours before I again eat and drink. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the obligatory pillars of Islam, a month when all willing Muslims, if they are healthy and beyond puberty, daily abstain from drinking, eating, smoking and sex between dawn and sunset.
First light. Fast.
Permit me, please, to share these Ramadan reflections with you. While, politically speaking, it’s often challenging to be Muslim in America – especially these days – I wouldn’t be anywhere else. The United States is one of the easiest countries to live in as a Muslim. Here, Muslims can freely lead Sharia-compliant lives. No one tells us whether, how or when to pray. No one tells a woman to be covered and submissive. No one enforces the fast.
There is no compulsion in religion – No one intercedes between me and God.
That doesn’t make it easy.
In America’s 24/7, tweeting, 4G-wired, consumer-based society a break from materialism is difficult, and the journey back to reconnect with the center of our being — our fitra, our innate nature — can be challenging.
We’re challenged, too, by the shared fears and tensions that arise over concerns about terrorism and violence – challenged by those who distort our faith and defile the earth.
It’s not supposed to be easy – it’s not supposed to be this hard.
Ramadan is a time for the most intimate of dialogues — with oneself, with the Beloved.
Muslims are informed, “It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was (first) bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man…” and its first verse began, “Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created man out of a germ-cell. Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know!”
“… taught man what he did not know!”
Each day, each year, each Ramadan, I learn more what I do not know, and while I recognize that God lies “between the human being and his heart,” I learn, too, that grace, forgiveness and love from my Beloved is limitless, and welcomes me back whenever I stray.
Ramadan is the time we are called to return to oneself.
The Islamic hijri calendar is lunar. Each year Ramadan arrives 11 days sooner. In winter, fasting days are short. In July, fasting can last over 17 hours, a challenge during a hot New England summer.
Iftar, the daily meal that breaks the fast, begins, in the tradition of prophet Muhammad, by eating dates. Families and friends – Muslims and non-Muslim – gather together, and extra congregational prayers (Tarawih) are performed at night.
Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, Holiday of Fast-Breaking, and is celebrated with community prayer and feasting and, as Easter and Passover are celebrated, with new clothes and gifts for children.
Ramadan is a time to fast, pray, reflect and renew. To heal relationships, to try and keep from getting agitated or angry toward others, to re-establish paths to goodness and hospitality.
Ramadan is God’s challenge to mankind: Be mindful of who you are, be mindful of God’s blessings, be compassionate. Embrace truth.
Daily, our thirst and hunger reminds us not only of the abundance, sometimes excesses, of our lives but of the many for whom life each day is a struggle with poverty and hunger, of those for whom potable water is an unknown luxury, of those for whom disease and illiteracy is epidemic, of those who dwell in dark, desolate corners of our earth.
Throughout the world, especially throughout the Muslim world today, many are consumed by wars, conflict, poverty and occupation. Terrorists defile the Word of God, leaving streets stained by blood.
Globally, the world is being pillaged for profit, the gifts of the Beloved are daily abused and their beauty forsaken.
I’m in awe of those who sustain their fast under such circumstances. Indeed, how does one making $2 a day sustain a family? How does a community survive? How does one have strength to embrace Ramadan when each day seems a struggle in darkness?
How do we, who live in such privilege, allow that to continue?
All faiths fast. In our Scriptures, in our traditions and stories of the value of fasting, contemplation and renewal we find connectedness to God and to each other.
“Fasting is, first and foremost, an exercise for identifying and managing adversity in all its forms,” Tariq Ramadan has written. “With faith, in full conscience, fasting calls women and men to an extra degree of self-awareness.”
We find paths from darkness to light: “The day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light,” Romans 13:12.
As people of faith we put ourselves in the hands of the Beloved – And our Beloved puts us, and this earth, in each other’s hands.
As Muslims and non-Muslims, as believers, secularists, atheists, humanists, I believe we’re united in our desire to live within communities where truth, justice and peace prevail.
Ramadan reminds me I have no dignity unless all have dignity. Ramadan reminds me I deserve no respect until all have respect, that I will be hungry until all are fed.
Within the beauty of Ramadan, in the armor of light that is God’s embrace, I pray for the weak, the sick and the marginalized. I reach to embrace the dispossessed and exploited.
Muslims welcome Ramadan. This gift from God, this challenge to contemplate our commitment to our Beloved, to our brothers and sisters, to all humanity and to this earth is a blessing for which I am thankful.
Rumi wrote of Ramadan:
“Where friends unite together, there in the midst of the house / by God, is a spreading plain.”
Let us gather there, you and I, on that plain, in justice, peace and love.